HAVE you bought a new telly, or a new computer, at any time lately? More to the point, have you scrapped an old one?
If you did, do you know what became of the unwanted carcass?
Last time I upgraded, my old TV was snapped up on Freecycle and as far as I know is still doing service in a teenager’s bedroom.
My last defunct PC was demolished by someone who knows about these things, its valuable parts salvaged to be used again.
But with more and more new machines flooding the market, ever more powerful and ever cheaper, there’s an inevitable limit to how much can be recycled or reused.
So where do old electronic beasts go to die? And what becomes of their rotting corpses?
We know that tipping them into burgeoning landfill sites is no kind of solution.
Responsible folk take them to recycling centres such as the one at Foxhall and place them carefully in the appropriate skip. Then drive away and forget about them, duty done.
Meanwhile, in impoverished African countries such as Nigeria and Somalia, piles of dumped electronic goods heap up in slum areas.
There they cause toxic pollution of a kind that would never be allowed in the countries, such as ours, from which they have been shipped.
And there a very basic form of recycling takes place.
Children as young as five pick over the piles, extract and sort tiny quantities of valuable metals and compounds including:
• Antimony oxide (causes heart and lung problems, diarrhoea, vomiting, eye irritation)
• Beryllium (can cause a fatal lung disease)
• Cadmium (causes lung cancer, damages kidneys and bones)
And that’s just A, B and C on the danger-list. A single CRT computer monitor can contain 3kg of lead – long known here for its dangerous impact on young brains.
For the kids who make a lethal living picking over what is known as e-waste, the easy way to get to the precious metals is to burn off the surrounding plastic. Releasing a fearful cocktail of poisons into the air they breathe. And indirectly into the water they drink.
This is the shocking, Dickensian end of the trade that brings the ever-smarter, ever-cleverer electronic toys into your home.
A number of British companies are now under investigation for their part in this international scandal.
The Environment Agency has taken on a team of 20 detectives to probe illegal waste shipments. And though no one has yet been charged, a series of raids on various sites is expected.
Whether this team is anywhere near large enough, or equipped enough, to really tackle a massive problem is another question.
Of the 900,000 tonnes of electrical items thrown away in Britain last year, more than half is thought to have been either dumped illegally in the UK or sent abroad.
A computer from the UK Ministry of Defence has been found on a deadly dump in Ghana.
So is YOUR old PC killing kids in Africa right now?
That’s the question I wanted an urgent answer to. And the answer I discovered was a resounding ‘no’. As long as you did the right thing and took your junk to a council disposal centre, that is.
In fact, it seems Suffolk is leading the way in showing others – including the MoD – how to turn a problem into an opportunity.
Every old computer taken to Foxhall, Portman’s Walk, Carr Road Felixstowe or any of the county’s other recycling centres ends up at Highpoint Prison, near Newmarket.
There it is checked to see if it works or can be repaired. If it can be, it’s put back into use.
If not, it’s dismantled, safely and carefully, and its components sold for re-use.
The best part is that the skilled work is carried out by inmates as part of an electronic engineering course. So not only is it done safely and responsibly, but it helps in the vital re-skilling of offenders.
And all within Suffolk.
WHAT about computers that haven’t been scrapped, but confiscated?
Suffolk Trading Standards recently gave a lot of PCs, seized during investigations, to the registered charity Computer Aid International.
The computers were wiped of all information and refurbished before being sent to schools, weather stations, hospitals and community organisations in developing countries including Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Anja ffrench from Computer Aid International said: “The most effective way to maximise the number of people with access to ICT in developing countries is by re-using existing equipment all the way through to the end of its life.
“Less than half of PCs are re-used. Donors like Suffolk Trading Standards are addressing this balance and ensuring a sustainable outcome for their old equipment.”
So it seems, one way or another, your old PC could well end up in Africa.
Whether it ruins children’s lives there, or enhances them, is at least partly up to you.